Amazon Studios, 2023
Janine Nabers, Donald Glover
📷 : Used with Permission, Izzy Aghahowa (izzyaghahowa.co.uk)
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“Who’s your favorite artist?”
For those that follow pop stars in the era of social media, we know the danger that comes with criticizing any of them. The biggest Top 40 artists all have their own armies (or in one case Navy) who go to great lengths to bully critics into silence and obscurity. While it would be easy to tell those super-fans to get a life, their dedication speaks to an unbreakable bond we often feel with celebrities that have brought us so much joy. The stars’ personas and extravagant lifestyles provide fans with the same escapism that the art itself does. The cyberbullying and intimidation tactics reflect our desperation to hold onto that dopamine rush. The lengths to which anyone chooses to take their fandom is an individual choice, heavily influenced by the need to hide from real life circumstances. Such can be said for Dre in the new Amazon series Swarm.
Played by the talented Dominique Fishback (The Hate U Give), Dre is a lonely teenager who idolizes world-famous pop singer Ni'Jah. Her fandom becomes so intense that she responds to any criticism, ill sentiments or even indifference of Ni'Jah with brutal violence. After losing a close friend, Dre goes on a killing spree across several different cities, with all of her victims having in common their disdain for Ni'Jah’s talent and fame. Outside of escaping culpability, Dre’s ultimate goal is to see Ni'Jah up close and personal.
The series is very cleverly cast, as it consists of many actors who are adjacent to staggering pop star fame or are indeed pop stars themselves. The supporting characters include singers Billie Eilish and Chloe Bailey, Paris Jackson, and Rory Culkin. The latter two are the daughter of the late Michael Jackson and brother of Macaulay Culkin, respectively. This infusion of personalities and recognizable faces adds to the thematic elements of the show.
Donald Glover’s name may be the draw of the series, specifically for fans of the Emmy-winning Atlanta, but the co-creator Janine Nabers deserves a shout-out as well. In addition to writing for Atlanta, she produced episodes for Watchmen, the hit HBO mini-series from 2019. Nabers is also an award-winning playwright and librettist (one who writes the words for an extended musical composition). We’ve seen successful crossovers from the stage to the screen before with writers like Aaron Sorkin, and Nabers’ contributions to Swarm certainly demonstrate her versatility.
Beyoncé fans, affectionately known as the Beyhive, may watch Swarm and feel slighted. After all, there are numerous references to real-life events, anecdotes, and details that make it obvious who Ni'Jah is “supposed” to be modeled after. Taken at face value, the series is nothing more than the satirizing of how Beyoncé’s most loyal followers behave, online and occasionally in person. However, if you look closer, much of Dre’s language and behavior (outside of maybe the assaults and murders) applies to fans of several other larger-than-life pop culture figures: LeBron James, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and the list goes on. Fans become so swept up in the emotions these figures conjure up that they no longer see a difference of opinion as a positive or even an option.
As Dre hops from destination to destination, her experiences become more than just homicidal missions being carried out. Her adolescence and past trauma comes into view, expanding the scope of the series’ premise beyond a parody of excessive fandom and into an examination of mental health and the foster care system. Though these details humanize Dre, her transgressions still overshadow any sympathy the audience might feel. After all, her victims are human as well.
Swarm’s innovation is not in its satirical elements but in who its story focuses around. Many serial killer stories revolve around psychotic, cognitively dissonant White men. They are often well-educated, financially successful, and completely irredeemable. This series instead chooses a young, gender-fluid Black woman suffering the effects of childhood trauma. Despite her past, Dre’s actions remain reprehensible. While her string of homicides begins with people who have questionable moral compasses themselves, it becomes clear that Dre will harm anyone of any background, no matter how virtuous. We see these qualities in anti-heroes such as Dexter, Patrick Bateman or Joe Goldberg, all distinguished White men, in Dexter, American Psycho and You, respectively. However, we rarely see a Black female protagonist allowed to exhibit rage, immorality and violence that they get away with time and again.
The connotation of the term satire may mislead you to think Swarm is light-hearted and playful in tone. On the contrary, there are several grim and sobering moments, in addition to the overall violence and raunchiness. Still, viewers can take and leave as much as they want from the show’s overall theme. The series exists as a deeper conversation piece, or something to chuckle about whenever Beyoncé fans get on your nerves. In any case, these 7 episodes convinced me to keep any critical opinions of pop music icons to myself [grits teeth].